Posted on June 30, 2016 by Amyas Morse
I am honoured to be the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) in post on the 150th anniversary of the role. Indeed, I was also here in 2014 for the 700th anniversary of the first (documented) Auditor of the Exchequer. Since then, our country has fought a Civil War over the role of Parliament, including its powers to raise revenue and authorise expenditure, although Parliamentary control and scrutiny of public spending has mostly been weak through the centuries. Somewhat more recently, the country has voted for a historic decision to leave the European Union, which will usher in major changes for government, needing careful planning, implementation and evaluation.
It was under William Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1859-1866, that the first major steps towards proper financial accountability to Parliament were taken – leading to the creation of my role 150 years ago. Those who sometimes query our audit sample size will be relieved to know that we’ve no plans to return to the original approach of examining every single transaction!
The original 1866 Act also required the C&AG to report to Parliament that money had been spent in accordance with Parliament’s wishes. However, it took until the 1980s for the C&AG to be given statutory powers to report to Parliament on the value for money achieved by government departments, although reports of this kind had been increasingly produced without statutory powers since the late 19th century. It was in 1983 that the NAO was created, independent of government.
As the Act creating my role also required all departments to produce annual accounts, it’s very timely that the NAO has just published our own Annual Report. I always get greatest satisfaction from the impact of our work. Of the recommendations we made in our published reports between 1 April 2014 and 31 December 2015 94% are either being implemented or in the process of being implemented. Against the £64.5m that the NAO costs the taxpayer, the total – audited – financial savings achieved from our work in 2015 were £1.21 billion; that’s £19 for every £1 spend on running the NAO. Many benefits achieved by our work are harder to measure financially, but have huge impact nevertheless – some are illustrated below, more are in our Annual Report. Examples of positive change are crucial because one of the key aspects of our work is to share good practice and lessons learnt across government to help drive improvements in all public services.
What does all this mean at this momentous time in UK history?
What the last 700 years teaches us is the crucial importance of government being accountable to the people – represented by Parliament.
Whatever the exact shape of ‘Brexit’, it will impose a new set of priorities and massive amounts of work on the government. Directly or indirectly, no area of UK spending will be untouched. And a key challenge will be managing the temptation to make major decisions at speed. Our report on Accountability to Parliament for taxpayers’ money, summarised in our recent post Spending your money wisely, stressed the need for Accounting Officers to resist pressure to implement plans taken rapidly, or for political reasons, where they are not in accordance with the need to use public resources wisely. Such pressures on Accounting Officers and Ministers, alike, may well become greater in the years ahead of us.
The NAO will, of course, continue to support Parliament to assess and respond to the planning, implementation and value of what is being done in its name through these major changes. We will continue to be clear and forthright, independent, and firm but fair in what we say, and highly professional in what we do.
For me, the importance of our 150th anniversary – and certainly of the EU vote – is not the past, but the future. Our Chairman, Lord Bichard, opens his statement in our Annual Report saying “There has never been a time when the NAO was needed more.” Prophetic, indeed.
The government is already in the midst of major reforms and transformation in public services delivered, from delivering services digitally, to devolving decisions and spending to the local level. As we work towards a country outside EU membership, the NAO will continue to play a key role in safeguarding taxpayers’ interests and reporting on whether public bodies have used public money efficiently, effectively and with economy. We will also continue to practice what we preach. We will continue to do more with less, improving own our systems, ways of working and sharing of knowledge. In particular, we will do still more to spread our influence across government, sharing good practice and lessons learnt, and helping to equip government for the challenges to come.
As always, I welcome your comments and invite you to contact us to discuss any aspect of our work.About the author: Amyas Morse, Comptroller and Auditor General. Amyas has been head of the NAO since 2009, before which he was a global partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers and Commercial Director at the Ministry of Defence. He has served on a range of cross-government Boards and Groups.
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